Artist Ryan Ikeda’s domestic bliss shatters after an invitation to join a career-launching gallery show in 1990s Seattle. His artistic uncertainty and secret desires, dangerous as turpentine and flame, threaten to torch his bond with Ben, his handsome boyfriend and muse.
Suddenly, instability rocks every aspect of Ryan’s life: his grandmother’s sinking health, his friends moving on to new jobs, even his apartment is endangered. Worst of all, Ben’s work demands more time away from home, the overload of changes jeopardizing the stability of their open relationship.
Ryan’s long-time friends advise him to jump headlong in to the colorful Seattle art scene. However, Ryan’s deep examination of his creative needs outline new demands for his life with Ben. Striving for both balance and success, Ryan faces the greatest risks of his personal and professional life.
Just Like Honey peeks inside working artists’ studios, cruises the 1990s Seattle bar scene, and eavesdrops on artists gossiping about their competitors at hot gallery shows, while Ryan and Ben explore the communication and tenderness required for a deep, open relationship.
POC (Japanese American)
Content Warning for:
Homophobic language (period appropriate)
Just Like Honey proved to be a lush and absorbing read that lived up to its title – it left a sweet taste in my mouth and a smile on my lips. I’m a big fan of the author’s Queen City Boys series, an unapologetic and unabashed love letter to the city of Seattle but I must say Bell has outdone themselves with this release, which pays tribute to the city’s Asian American community as well as its arts scene.
The story takes place in the late 90’s (1997 to be exact) which totally appealed to my headbanging, flannel-rocking Gen X little heart, but the book is far from a grunge era cliche. Once again, the author brings Seattle to life – even for someone who’s never visited – not only with intimate descriptions of the city streets, but by deftly capturing the spirit of the times through the eyes of main character Ryan and a sweeping cast of supportive characters.
The story itself started out pretty slow for me. To be honest, I’m not sure if this was a pacing thing, or because of my initial concerns with where Ryan’s story was headed. As an Asian reader who’s experienced enough careless representation, I must admit it took me a while to warm up to his character (who’s third generation Japanese American) and equally as important, his art (which reflects his heritage). I also had to do some quick Googling to familiarize myself with some of the early art references, so that factored into my slow start as well.
In any case, the sluggish and somewhat repetitive start reflected Ryan’s anxious and chaotic state of mind to a T when we first meet him. Professionally, his confidence was at an all-time low and his career was nowhere close to taking off despite making a name for himself in his art school days. While his peers had moved on to enjoy various degrees of success in the thriving Seattle arts scene, Ryan had instead chosen to perfect his craft away from the public eye. A decade later, the pressure to show his work was all but overwhelming, despite the fact that he still didn’t feel ready.
In many ways, his relationship with his boyfriend Ben was also in a rut. Besides his inability to express his true self emotionally or sexually, the two of them simply never got to spend any time together. Having said that, they enjoyed a robust and healthy open relationship and were clearly in their element when they chose to engage with a third. Seeing them together – as a couple or with a third – was beautiful and precious but a lot of the time, you could cut through the tension between them with a knife. Their arguments were devastatingly brutal and real, and left me holding my breath – a sure sign I was committed in their story.
While Ryan’s relationship with Ben was at the core of the story, Just Like Honey was ultimately about growth and discovery, as well as family and community. I thoroughly enjoyed the romantic arc, but these other elements were what made the book truly shine for me. Ryan’s story had a lot of meat to it and I daresay Bell’s writing did his journey justice and kept me invested at every turn. Watching him grow as an artist, a son, a partner and dominant – while also exploring his roots and honoring his heritage – was such a fulfilling experience. Just seeing him and Ben learn to communicate with each other was huge. Speaking of which, I may or may not have ugly cried after a huge gamble Ryan took in the bedroom paid off. Plus you know it’s good when the smoking hot sex makes you cry.
The substantial cast of characters was vividly portrayed – and so racially diverse! In spotlighting the Asian American community, I thought the author succeeded at not only portraying the characters as unique individuals (and not some monolithic collective), but also representing the different ethnicities that make up the community. Once you add in the arts crowd and the familiar faces from the rest of the series, the sense of community was unmistakable and it underscored Seattle as a sort of oversized small town. It was awesome to revisit some of my favorite characters from the past (Steve’s all grown up!), but I have to say that my favorite moments in this book were Ryan’s quiet conversations with his Gramma Sue and her friend Mrs. Hino.
If you’re looking to lose yourself in a rich, finely woven and complex story of life and love in late 21st century Seattle, you can’t go wrong with Just Like Honey and the Queen City Boys series. It may not have the back alley grit of Bad Reputation or This Charming Man, but it’s no less beautifully raw and intensely honest with just the right amount of sweet.
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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.